Upon receiving Hiram Butler Gallery’s announcement for How to Draw a Circle, an exhibition of drawings and sculptures by Joe Havel through September 26, I suggested to Havel we do an interview that would inform readers about his newest works, as well as discuss his art career and the MFAH Glassell School of Art where he is the Director. He would be “happy to do the interview,” Joe told me, and immediately sent a “portrait” of his bird Hanna.
Joe Havel with Hanna, Summer 2015, Image by Joe Havel
Virginia Billeaud Anderson: The art historian Irving Sandler, whom I had the opportunity to meet in New York if you can imagine that, wrote that the art system has a way of emasculating Duchamp’s urinal. Sandler was saying I believe that the post-modern appropriation of everyday objects has exited the avant-garde. A close look at your art made me realize that because I was overly focused on your use of ordinary objects, the “found” sheets, shirts and drapes that are the source of your sculptures, I under appreciated the extent to which Surrealism informs your work. There’s more to your creative process than the Pop-based incorporation of gross, mundane materials to challenge arts’ sanctity.
Joseph Havel: The touchstone is Surrealism and Dada, juxtaposition of the disparate and the irrational. For example I look to the metaphysical painter Morandi who had roots in Surrealism and found the possibility of transcendence in the mundane, or maybe through the mundane into another mental space.
VBA: Some might have difficulty imagining that sheets, drapes and shirts cast in bronze and welded together into columnar forms can be so impactful. I once read a comparison of your sculptures to Bernini’s St. Peter’s altar columns, which gives a sense of their Baroque quality, and a critic described the towering bronze Drape in the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth, as “sensuous.”
JH: Yes, but I’m interested in the point at which that form begins to break down into irony, where life’s fragmentary nature and chaos leak back in. I try to keep a tension between willing something towards pure form and the poetic decay of life. All that drapery and no one is home. We can compare this to Giacometti’s figures, the almost there but absent figure, even my piece in the sculpture garden at the MFAH is essentially a figure, the existential figure, but hopefully with Beckett’s sense of pathos through irony, humor, or at least displacement. Brancusi is an influence in idealized form and of course he is the fundamental “modern” sculptor that every “thing maker” deals with directly or indirectly. I reference directly his Endless Column, on which I based my Endless sculpture at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, and his Bird in Space. Some pieces play with the issue of the base and the object on top, questioning the sculptural function of support. This is evident in many of my resin sculptures cast from books.
VBA: Along with bronze and resin, collectors have come to associate your art with specific found objects, shirt labels for example, which you meticulously assemble into free standing and wall mounted presentations. The shirt labels unsettled me when I saw them in your 2006 MFAH exhibition Joseph Havel: A Decade of Sculpture, which means the art caused the psychological shift you intended. That exhibition I recall got you written about by those gurus at Art Forum. Your shirt labels actually make me think of the artist Tara Donovan who, like you, was selected by Valerie Cassel to exhibit in the 2000 Whitney Biennial of American Art, and who also obsessively manipulates her materials. Is it correct to say you work obsessively?
JH: That is correct.
VBA: When I wrote about Donovan I learned that she uses assistants to arrange the 500,000 toothpicks, or a room full of drinking straws or buttons, into sculptures. Do you use assistants to stuff 35,000 shirt labels into wall mounted plexi frames?
JH: I have one part time assistant who does very specific jobs but has not ever placed one single label in a plexi-glass box piece. It seems important that my hand does that.
VBA: Your hand is working damned hard to assemble 30,000 shirt labels.
JH: That repetition is an important element in my artistic practice, this type of sustained activity allows for the ego to be transcended. An important teacher was Warren Mackenzie, a potter who adhered to the Mingei philosophy and taught me the process of losing the ego through repetitive practice, this is essentially what I do. It is similar to Arte Povera which is performative in nature, with a focus on art as a way of living rather than producing master works, objects are created where art meets ordinary life, and that goes hand in hand with the modesty of materials, and also touches some aspects of Japanese Gutai, which stresses the importance of the artist’s body. Nothing is still nor is any viewer fixed, and the moment is part of a string of moments. Every experience is an interaction, all nouns are verbs. I am interested in the wonder of the mundane, the shirt labels carry a memory of their previous history, so you see my practice is aligned with Miro and other Surrealist precedents, and with my interest in Arte Povera.
VBA: Back to the topic of dramatic form, there are striking folds and wrinkles in the spherical bronze pieces in your sculptural grouping In Play at Rice University, which brings up the point that bronze casting and welding skill is an integral part of your art. Where do you cast in bronze, do you participate directly in the foundry work?
JH: The sculptures are all fabricated at my studio, the foundry is an intimate place with only a couple of people working, who I have worked with for well over a decade. It is not my foundry but we share the same building. I am always present and either directly or indirectly involved during the entire process.
VBA: The ceiling lumber in your studio looks as if it dates to the early century.
JH: My studio used to be an old church.
Joe Havel in his studio, Fall 2014, image by Will Michaels
VBA: It must be a happy thing to go back and forth to Paris for your exhibitions, and to have art in the Pompidou Center. I’ve often dreamed of having work that allowed me to live in Trastevere, my favorite part of Rome.
JH: I worked quite a bit in Paris and have a gallery there, and yes the Pompidou has 4 or 5 drawings and showed two in a group show a few years ago. I was thrilled. I love showing in France.
VBA: Your level of success is cemented by about forty years of steady exhibitions, and the large quantity of artworks that reside in private and public collections. But do you dream of having the art star exposure of artists such as Richard Serra, showy stuff like the French Legion of Honour award, conspicuous displays at the Grand Palais, commission-handling lawyers, bitchy public fights with architects, a $20 million Zwirner-brokered sale to MOMA? You get my question?
JH: I dream that my exhibit that will open September 10th in San Francisco is something I am really happy with and think is meaningful, and that it is not the last one: that I still have something to say. After that I will worry about what the exhibit in January might mean while I work on that. I take care of my practice like a garden. I tend it and water it rather than constantly dreaming about the grand harvest. My ego is built differently than Serra’s.
VBA: Being partial to clear, ordinary language on the topic of art, it was refreshing to read Thomas Hoving’s criticism of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. After dismissing Hans Haacke's Sanitation as “sophomoric garbage”, the former New York Metropolitan Museum Director described your sculpture Curtains (1999), as “three tall and mysterious contemporary dolmens (you know, those mammoth stones cast about the French countryside) in marvelously patinated bronze actually cast from draped, common fabric the artist bought at a thrift shop ‘Value Village’ near his home. He has a special gift to transform the ordinary into sheer poetry.” I’m contrasting Hoving’s straight-forward writing style to some of the mouthy criticism that exhibiting artists typically endure, and you’ll probably say something diplomatic, but did you find valuable the 2013 critical insinuation that you are repeating what is popular, which in my opinion simply means commercially successful, which I think makes you smart, especially with the price of oil taking a dump?
Translucent resin books
JH: I care as much about that which was said, as Agnes Martin would if you complained she kept painting stripes. If anything, my work has been marked by restlessness, and when it loops back it is to reinvent and invest it in the moment; in a new context. In 2013 almost none of my work was in bronze and my shows were primarily cast translucent resin books, so go figure.
VBA: Joe, the oil stick and graphite circular drawings at Hiram Butler are lovely, particularly their arrangement and scale against the gallery wall. They made me think of Eva Hesse’s circle drawings exhibited at the Menil in 2006. And the three dimensional circular bronze wall reliefs cast from shirts have an intricate encrusted quality that pulls the eye to spaces around pleats and lace. According to the gallery press release, you titled the bronze reliefs, A Moon for Each Eye, from a line of the poem How to Draw a Circle by Texas Poet Laureate Dean Young, who composed the poem after you showed him your circle drawings. Explain how Young’s “moon” verse relates to the gallery bronzes.
JH: The moon in each eye is partially because the bronze wall reliefs look like lunar landscapes with sleeve holes for craters but are also very directly related to the body, they are little personal moons.
VBA: Let’s point out for readers the insistently circular nature of the cut-paper and collage book that is part of the exhibition. You constructed a book which features Young’s poem by dissecting and reassembling letters from John Ashbery’s book of poetry. This continues your longstanding reliance on literature for inspiration, and represents a typical reworking of past ideas and materials, which is part of your conceptual strategy for projects to loop around.
JH: Because the book I made using Dean’s poem is a direct representation of our collaborative exchange, it needed to be a thing that bound our practices together. Ashbery is a poet Dean and I were both very interested in, and I had used the Ashbery book in earlier artworks, so circling back to it fit nicely. Also Dean is stylistically connected to Ashbery’s New York School of poetry, albeit mentioned as the younger generation, so it seemed appropriate to use Ashbery's collected “late” poems. You are correct that all of the pieces in the show draw on motifs from previous forms, or are constructed from remnants of earlier sculptures. Their serial nature is an important element. Remember that each work is a rehearsal with the body constantly trying to perform the "nothing" of a circle and in so doing asking what a circle might be. Dean’s poem is poetically in sync with these ideas.
VBA: See below my literary gift to you and Dean Young, a few lines of verse from Ashbery’s poem Skaters which he published in 1966, the year his close friend Frank O’Hara died.
There is much to be said in favor of stormsJH: Virginia, thank you.
But you seem to have abandoned them in favor of endless light.
I cannot say that I think the change much of an improvement.
There is something fearful in these summer nights that go on forever
VBA: In 1991 you came to Houston to run the Core Residency Program at MFHA’s Glassell School of Art, and in 1993 became Director of the Glassell School of Art. What in your background qualified you to run Glassell, were you a professor?
JH: Yes, I was a professor before.
VBA: I’ve watched you from a distance, and it occurred to me that along with impressive art education and art professional qualifications, MFA would have found valuable how properly you conduct yourself. Joseph, you’re a gentleman. It wouldn’t do to have some jackass in the presence of Mrs. Long or the Alfred Glassell brood.
HJ: I behave the way I do because I am fundamentally very shy.
VBA: You were hired by Peter Marzio; are things different with Gary Tinterow? I know you won’t say anything negative about your boss, but did things change at MFAH when Gary became the new museum director, is there a difference in style?
JH: The job changes all the time. It changed with Gary coming, and continues to change, after all we just moved to a lovely temporary space for two years while the new building goes up, than will move again. Things changed all the time under Peter too. I came here to run the Core and still love the Core program which also changes all the time. Remember that all of this I do as an extension of being an artist, a cultural practitioner.
VBA: As an educator, do you acknowledge some of the idiocy in contemporary art? We’re in an era in which postmodern academics and curators have accepted into the canon Bruce Nauman’s painting his testicles and calling it sculpture, and the late Beuys filling glass vitrines with swept up street dirt and cigarette butts, “the artist’s hand arranged the chaos,” Menil curators devoutly told us at the 2004 exhibition. Do you find any of this absurd?
JH: I find it absurd and serious at precisely the same time. I find life ridiculous and profound. I want my art to be sublime and ironic in equal proportions. To be grand and mundane.
VBA: Can I have Esther’s job when she retires? How fun to get to greet everybody.
JH: Our much loved Esther just retired.
VBA: I would be good in that job. How come you seem behind the scenes at Glassell? I often imagined you spend all your time with Board members, and with those rich women who put on the fundraisers. Certainly you oversee budgets and schedules, but are you involved in daily operations, for example if an instructor is coming to class drunk, do you nail him, or does Patrick Palmer get to do that?
JH: I actually have done everything from the bottom up in every area. I am shy, as said above and my ego does not need to be in front, but I teach, raise money, plan, do budgets, and clean toilets if needed. I have a wonderful team and they are hugely committed and we run everything as a team. I respect them and don't supersede but have involvement and set the larger direction with their consultation. I also still work with Mary Leclere to run the Core Program, oh yeah, I am a full time artist too. All of this does not leave a lot of time to be in front of the scenes. That is not my personality.
VBA: Are you relieved David Brauer retired? He must have caused you a tiny bit of discomfort, when people complained, people who paid tuition. Here was a captivating lecturer who could not tolerate stupidity and imbecilic remarks. Once I witnessed a woman ask a ridiculous question, and he shook his head and said “I can’t believe you asked that,” in front of the entire class, rightly making the point that if one is that ignorant about a topic one should probably keep one’s mouth shut and listen. And during his MFA public lectures David didn’t hesitate to say how little he thought of the museum’s collection, which probably pissed off a few Board members.
JH: David was well loved, idiosyncratic and irritable at times, irascible at others. Sounds pretty good, really. I’m sure I have pissed some people off.
VBA: As you reminded us, the Glassell School just moved into its new temporary quarters, demolition of the old building is set for September, and the new building will be complete in 2017. I’m assuming some of those gifts, such as the $250 million that made the news, will help to pay for the new building. Did you participate in choosing the architects for the new building?
JH: I did not choose Steven Holl but have worked with him and his team on the design, as have others on the Glassell team.
VBA: Besides newness and considerably more space, what about the new building excites you the most?
JH: The roof top green space observatory and its integration into the campus. Imagine how cool it will be when everything is done to walk out of your class or studio next door to a building filled with modern and contemporary artworks as precedents and examples. It’s as good as adding twice as many faculty.
VBA: Is there anything else you want readers to know about you, or your art?
JH: Hanna would like to mention that she comes up with all the ideas, and just whispers them to me. I am just a front!